In a sudden about-face, the Trump administration has decided to exclude Florida from its plan to expand offshore oil and gas drilling.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced the decision Tuesday evening after meeting with Florida Gov. Rick Scott at Tallahassee International Airport.
Scott had joined with a bipartisan group of state officials in blasting the administration's plan unveiled last week to open up Florida waters — a part of the largest single expansion of off-shore drilling activity ever proposed.
“President Trump has directed me to rebuild our offshore oil and gas program in a manner that supports our national energy policy and also takes into consideration the local and state voice,” Zinke said in a statement released by his office. “I support the governor's position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver. As a result of discussion with Governor Scott and his leadership, I am removing Florida from consideration for any new oil and gas platforms.”
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said the decision to remove Florida so quickly after it had been included in an energy-development plan that was months in the making smacked of political gamesmanship. Scott is expected to challenge Sen. Bill Nelson, a long-time drilling foe, later this year in what would be one of the nation's most hotly contested Senate races.
“I have spent my entire life fighting to keep oil rigs away from our coasts. But now, suddenly, Secretary Zinke announces plans to drill off Florida's coast and four days later agrees to 'take Florida off the table'? I don't believe it,” Nelson said in a statement. “This is a political stunt orchestrated by the Trump administration to help Rick Scott, who has wanted to drill off Florida's coast his entire career. We shouldn't be playing politics with the future of Florida.”
The drilling proposal, announced last week, includes 47 potential lease sales in 25 of the 26 planning areas — 19 sales off the coast of Alaska, seven in the Pacific region, 12 in the Gulf of Mexico, and nine in the Atlantic region.
The five-year plan, covering 2019 to 2024, was initiated by the America First Offshore Energy Strategy directive Trump signed in April that could eventually open up Arctic waters and millions of coastal acres off U.S. shores to oil and gas drilling.
"Our country is blessed with incredible natural resources including abundant offshore oil and natural gas resources, but the federal government has kept 94% of these offshore areas closed for exploration and production," Trump said at the time. "This deprives our country of potentially thousands and thousands of jobs and billions in wealth."
When he announced the five-year plan last week, Zinke said his agency would work with states and members of Congress who represent potential drilling areas to allay concerns. But the move already was getting pushback from a number of Florida officials, including Scott, a Trump confidante, who said he would oppose drilling off Florida's coasts where tourism and coastal military installations are important to the state's economy.
"By removing Florida from consideration, we can now focus on how we can further protect our environment, including our proposal for record funding for the Everglades, our springs, our beaches and our state parks," Scott said. "I will never stop fighting for Florida's environment and our pristine coastline.”
Polls suggest Floridians are increasingly opposed to off-shore drilling.
The annual University of South Florida-Nielsen Sunshine State Survey showed 44% support for the activity in 2014 with 39% opposed. In 2016, 47% opposed off-shore drilling compared with 32% who supported it.
Sierra Club Florida Director Frank Jackalone decried Zinke's decision as a "purely political move to aid the ambitions of Rick Scott."
"Had Zinke cared about the wishes of coastal communities or how drilling off their coasts will affect them, he would have proposed a plan that shrinks drilling even further, not proposed expanding operations to nearly every corner of our waters," Jackalone said in a statement. “Floridians won't put up with politicians who support offshore drilling because an oil spill on our beaches would wreck our economy and destroy what people love most about our state."